Tomorrow, the United States and its fellow members of the "P5+1" (Russia, China, France, England and Germany) will sit down once again with Iran for what has been billed as the Islamic Republic's "last chance" to come to terms with the West regarding its nuclear ambitions. The likely outcome of those talks, however, is already within view—and it is far from encouraging.
The dialogue slated to begin in Istanbul on April 13th is part of a larger continuum of Western diplomacy, and of Iranian intransigence. It represents at least the third round of formal international diplomacy in the past decade aimed at negotiating some sort of resolution to Iran's nuclear program. The first such attempt was the "EU-3" diplomatic track that held sway between 2003 and 2005; the second was the June 2008 P5+1 consultations with Iran. Nearly a dozen proposals and compromises have been floated by Iran and the West in between, with little tangible result. (The Arms Control Association has a good list here). It therefore is exceedingly difficult to be optimistic that this time will be any different.
This is all the more so because Western objectives in the negotiations are so ambiguous. In the run-up to tomorrow's talks, the Obama administration already has signaled a number of "near term" demands that it will be making of the Iranian regime, including that it shutter its pilot uranium enrichment plant at Fordow and cease enriching uranium beyond civilian grade levels. But it is unclear what actually would constitute substantive success in the eyes of the U.S. and its allies. What isn't, however, is that negotiations are likely to be a protracted process, since officials in Washington believe that Iran's response—and its willingness to comply with U.S. demands—won't necessarily be known "after the first meeting." All of which makes negotiations a potential recipe for policy paralysis on the part of the United States and Europe: a long-running dialogue with no clear objective in sight.
For Iran, meanwhile, the benefits of actually striking a deal with the West are minimal. After all, America's recent retraction from Iraq, and its impending pullout from Afghanistan, has sent an unmistakable signal to Iranian officials that Washington's equities in the greater Middle East are diminishing (and that, therefore, their own freedom of maneuver is expanding). Equally pernicious is the Iranian perception that at least some level of Iranian nuclearization has already been accepted by the West—a belief reinforced by the conversations about "containment" and "deterrence" of a nuclear Iran now making the rounds within the Washington Beltway. In that context, Iran has every incentive to wait America out, and to continue on its current strategic course.
The likely outcome of talks, therefore, will be to provide an advantage to Iran. Like previous attempts at "engagement," they will allow the Islamic Republic to play for time while it adds permanence to its nuclear effort. Moreover, if it provides some concessions (as it has already hinted that it will), Tehran's reward might just be an extended negotiating track and a delay of new sanctions restrictions set to come into force this summer.
Iran's strategic calculus hasn't fundamentally changed, however. True, economic sanctions levied by the West are at long last having a real impact—a reality most clearly seen in Iran's shrinking oil trade with Asia, and in its soaring domestic inflation rate. But, at least so far, Iran's leaders have given every indication that they remain committed to their current nuclear course. (Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for one, has blustered defiantly in recent days that Iran can withstand an oil blockade of the type envisioned by Europe for "2-3 years"—by which time his country ostensibly already will have crossed the nuclear Rubicon.)
For Iran, therefore, negotiations are the gift that keeps on giving: a surefire way to delay (and possibly even derail) a forceful Western response. For the United States and its allies, meanwhile, tomorrow's negotiations will provide a temporary reprieve, deferring some hard choices about whether force will ultimately be needed to stop Iran's nuclear progress.
If history is any indication, however, they won't eliminate them.